Women deserve way better information about prenatal and postnatal fitness
During my first pregnancy, I read everything I could find about pregnancy and babies. Every free moment I got, I would be online reading other mothers’ experiences and advice and opinions from experts. Anyone who was pregnant for the first time would know exactly what I mean. I bought a thick book on pregnancy and child caring for my husband and I to read. Towards the end of my pregnancy, I took a full series of classes on what to expect during childbirth, caring for your baby and breastfeeding given by the hospital I was going to give birth in.
The first pregnancy is incredibly exciting and scary. We never feel like we are prepared enough. My gynaes constantly assured me that my pregnancy was going smoothly. I did not have any risk factors based on all the standard pregnancy checks and tests, and I experienced no nausea or pain throughout. I could never have imagined the amount of suffering I would have to go through later on.
When the baby arrived, I felt so relieved thinking that my body had finally completed its task. I did not understand the major changes my body had just gone through and had no idea my body needed care as much as my baby did. My gynaes told me that childbirth was a natural process and I would recover naturally and had nothing to worry about. At this point, I had zero knowledge about how pregnancy, childbirth or caring for my baby could affect my spine. I did not know that relaxin, a hormone produced during pregnancy, would loosen my ligaments and make my joints more vulnerable to injuries. I did not know that carrying the baby’s weight for nine months and giving birth could cause imbalances in my pelvis and spine. I did not know that round-the-clock breastfeeding in a big chair that did not fit my body tremendously strains the spine and the neck. I did not know that repeatedly bending down to carry the baby was a surefire way to easily injure your spine. I did not know anything about how to safely strengthen my spine that could have prevented all the misery I would endure later on.
Two months into my postpartum, I developed mild back pain and went to see a general practitioner. She dismissed it as muscle strain. I then went to see a physiotherapist who assured me that back pain is very common for women in postpartum and that I did not need to be concerned. He gave me a few stretching exercises to do at home explaining how they would benefit me. With enough rest, my symptoms went away fast, but came back just as quickly and became worse once I started to carry my baby again. The second doctor I saw misdiagnosed my condition as “facet joint syndrome”. After assessing my lower back for five minutes, he referred me to a physiotherapist without explaining anything about my condition to me. Spine injuries are indeed very tricky to diagnose as they can manifest as a wide range of symptoms from localized muscle pain to widespread spasms, oftentimes not at the actual injury sites. It was only after I saw another doctor that I found out that I had a small tear in my spine, most likely from twisting while carrying my baby. He told me that I would recover in about six weeks. I was upset as six weeks seemed like a long time to not carry my daughter. It turned out to be nothing compared to what I had to suffer in the years to come.
After becoming pain-free, I took a private Pilates class based on a recommendation that Pilates can help prevent back pain. I did not know that spine joints become weaker after injury even when your symptoms have disappeared and can get easily and more seriously reinjured. Spine joints take much longer to recover, and recovery depends on the extent of injury; there is no one-size-fits-all rule of thumb. I wish my doctors had told me this. I wish my Pilates instructor had known this. Instead, she blindly pushed my limits, traumatized my spine and paralyzed my life in ways I still find hard to believe today (link to first Founder’s Journey article). I was asked to do full range sit-ups repetitively during my first class even though I explained that I had just given birth a few months ago and my back wasn’t in its best condition. I later found out that crunches are a huge no-no for anyone with a spinal condition and for postpartum women. I would never have imagined that a so-called expert Pilates instructor knew nothing about protecting the spine and dealing with postpartum conditions. I am appalled by the widespread ignorance about prenatal and postpartum body conditions in the fitness world. A lot of fitness classes focus on challenging your body, pushing your limits and getting strong fast. In the case of a weak postpartum body, this mindset can wreck their lives.
When it comes to pregnancy fitness in the media, the focus is always on weight loss and how to get your pre-pregnancy body back. When it comes to pelvic floor health, most people only talk about kegels superficially. Although I read extensively and did a lot of research on pregnancy-related topics, I never read or heard anything about diastasis recti, pregnancy-related incontinence or slipped discs, not even from my gynae and physiotherapist. I cannot come to terms with the fact that many health problems mothers quietly suffer from and endure for the rest of their lives can be easily prevented if our society were more educated on how pregnancy and childbirth changes our bodies.
My life would have been so different if I had known more about how pregnancy impacts the spine. I would have done the right exercises before and throughout my pregnancy to prepare my body for the stress it would go through. I wish the doctors had told me this.I would have maintained the correct posture during pregnancy. I would have spent time choosing a suitable chair for breastfeeding. I would have avoided twisting while carrying my baby. I would have avoided sitting or sleeping on soft and unsupportive bedding. I would have said no when someone asked me to do hardcore sit-ups in my postpartum. I would have stopped when the Pilates instructor tried to push me beyond my limit when I was already in pain. I cannot tolerate the fact that many people think back pain is common and normal for new mothers. It’s a sad reality that can be easily prevented if mothers, gynaes, husbands, grandparents, the fitness instructors and everyone else were better educated about how to treat a woman’s body right during and after pregnancy.